In the field of Psychology, whether you’re a grant-prospecting researcher or a clinical therapist, a social worker or school psychologist, it’s likely that you are taught the importance of person-first language. For the uninitiated, person-first language is a type of speech that uses the person as the primary subject focus, and renders the illness associated with the person as a secondary focus. So instead of phrasing a sentence as “Tina is an Autistic person”, we instead put forth the same information by saying “Tina is a person with Autism.” For you more perceptive readers, you may also have recognized that most of the articles written on the Project are written in this manner. In essence, the purpose of using such language is to separate the person and the illness—to emphasize that the person is not defined by his or her diagnosis, but is defined by the nature of his or her character.
However, with regards to the larger ASD community, person-first language isn’t necessarily always as well received. Due to the broad spectrum of severities and the diverse expression of symptoms, there are many who consider their diagnosis not as something to be cured, but as an integral part of their identity—choosing instead to use “identity-first” language (i.e., Autistic/Aspie) rather than “person-first” language. This perception of ASD, which describes a substantial number of cases being expressions of a unique cerebral trait rather than a debilitating mental disorder, is a key example of what is known as Neurodiversity theory. The conceptual framework of Neurodiversity theory focuses not on the nature of debilitating symptoms found in an individual on the Autism spectrum, but instead takes a more holistic approach by reconciling such symptoms with the individual’s strengths and capabilities. The most prominent example of this can be found in the Asperger’s community.
Since it was merged into the DSM-5 ASD diagnosis, many people who were previously diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—or ‘Aspies’ in the identity-first form—continue to embrace their label as a symbol of solidarity for their condition. They see their condition not as one that gives them an inherent disadvantage in life, but one that gives them a unique set of strengths that allows them to stand out from neurotypicals—or “normal” people. To support this, a study done by Lorenz & Heintz from the Free University of Berlin quantified the occupational strengths and weaknesses of Aspies. Compared to the neurotypical population, Aspies rated lower on social skills, emotional control, and self-efficacy–which is essentially the ability for an individual to take independent action in support of their interests. These findings were all consistent with established deficits described by their current diagnoses of ASD. However, they also rated significantly higher than neurotypicals in many categories of advanced cognitive function such as ‘attention to detail’ and ‘logical reasoning’ (5). The authors concluded and further reinforced the importance of occupational training to Aspies and others on the Autism spectrum, stating that the strengths of every individual have the potential to transform them into highly productive members of the workforce.
So in the face of this, is there a right type of language to use?
The rather unsatisfying answer is, it depends. As much as there are a substantial number on the spectrum who see their condition as a mark of pride and resilience, there are also equally as many who see their condition as a burden—a dark shadow engulfing their true self. Accordingly, such a diverse set of perspectives will necessitate person-first language to remain an integral part of the therapeutic process into the foreseeable future. Just as the many nuances of the Autism community continue to be as diverse as the facets of its diagnostic criteria, so too must our response.
Lorenz, T., & Heinitz, K. (2014). Aspergers – Different, Not Less: Occupational Strengths and Job Interests of Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. Plos ONE, 9(6), 1-8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100358